In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: One-size-fits-all gun laws fail Floridians

Gun rights absolutists conjured up a new enemy this week.

“Then there are mayors like Michael Ryan of Sunrise, Fl., who are just rabidly against your right to own a firearm or defend your family,” Florida Carry Inc. (the very definition of “rabid” when it comes to firearm policies) warned gun-heads via email this week. “Many of them are fully aware of what they are doing and just don’t care about the civil rights that they don’t like.”

Florida Carry didn’t enumerate the particular “civil right” threatened by Michael Ryan and a number of other city and county officials. Perhaps because most sane Americans, even most sane Floridians, would find this assumed “right” downright shocking.

Ryan’s actual sin had nothing to do with the right to “own a firearm or defend your family.” Rather, he had written to Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi raising “the obvious safety concerns associated with unregulated residential firearm ranges.”

Ryan was worried about backyard target ranges, which are not only legal in Florida, even in residential areas, but can’t be regulated by county or city governments.

Local governments can’t zone them out of neighborhoods, or keep private gun ranges away from schools or churches or daycare centers or government buildings or parks. Local governments can’t regulate the dimensions of a target backstop or the configuration of the range.

The mayor noted Wednesday that local governments can limit the impact that a homeowner’s new addition can have on his neighbor but can’t create standards if the same homeowner happens to jerry-rig a target range a few feet from the same neighbor’s house.

In fact, a 2011 statute not only preempted local government’s right to enact any firearm ordinances that exceeds state law, but punishes local legislators who might try with $5,000 fines and removal from office (along with any police chief who tries to enforce local gun laws).

But before this year, this obscure right to stick a private gun range on residential property was only an abstraction, just another in the state’s sump of preemption laws designed to emasculate local government.

But in January, the Miami Herald reported that a homeowner on Big Pine Key, to his neighbors’ chagrin, had built a gun range in his side yard. Monroe County officials admitted, ruefully, that they were shackled by state law.

In February, a similar story was reported in the Panhandle town of Freeport, where a resident was terrifying his neighbors, blasting away at his makeshift gun range with an AK-47. Hamstrung by the state’s preemption law, Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley could only lament (according to the Northwest Florida Daily News), “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”

Ryan said that “once the story was out, we were in a conundrum.” He knew that the possible publicity generated by appeals to the governor, attorney general or the legislature to fix the problem might actually inspire some knucklehead to fashion himself a residential range. After all, before the story broke on Big Pine Key, not even the most fervent gun nut would have imagined that state law would allow him to blast away in his backyard, unfettered by local officials, or his neighbor’s worries.

The question, Ryan said, was whether to try and do something and “risk drawing more attention to the problem,” or “do nothing and hope nobody gets killed.”

Neither the governor nor the attorney general indicated, in their tepid responses to Ryan last month, that they were much interested in fixing the gun-range problem. And, of course, the gun lobby looms over the legislature like a whip-cracking dominatrix in a room jammed with sadomasochists.

Tallahassee, rather than offend the gun-rights absolutists, will just ignore the danger, no matter how self-evident. “If you just Google ‘stray bullets’ and ‘gun ranges,’ you see that it’s a huge deal, even on commercial ranges with purported professional oversight,” Ryan said. He forwarded me 20 stories about stray gunshots from commercial ranges, killing and wounding people and scaring nearby homeowners, including residents by a Paris, Texas, police gun range.

Such talk, of course, made Michael Ryan an arch villain to gun rights absolutists. While we were talking Wednesday afternoon, an email hit his in-basket threatening that gun-rights advocates would to do to him what they had done to legislators in Colorado who had pushed through new gun-control legislation after the Aurora movie theater massacre. Two Colorado legislators were recalled in a special election last year.

“It’s simply an outrage,” Ryan said. “This happens anytime anybody puts the word ‘gun’ in a sentence. They start firing off accusations. The dialogue becomes so shrill that it exceeds all rationality.”

Ryan said he was only suggesting that this “one-size-fits-all” approach to gun laws, particularly gun-range laws, was failing Florida. That public safety issues in rural regions differed from those in towns like Sunrise.

And for anyone who thinks that he’s trying to infringe on some God-given American right to fashion a backyard shooting range, Ryan offered the ultimate gun-nut rejoinder. “Even Texas has made these illegal.”

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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